Ian Thomas Shaw was born in Vancouver, British Columbia. For the last 33 years, he has worked as a diplomat and as an international development worker, living in Africa, the Middle East and Europe. He currently lives in Aylmer, Quebec. He is the founder of Deux Voiliers Publishing, the Prose in the Park Literary Festival and the Ottawa Review of Books. Quill of the Dove (Guernica, 2019) is his second novel. He is the English translator of Andrée A. Gratton’s novel, Choosing Eleonore (Guernica, 2021).
1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
Writing my first novel, Soldier, Lily, Peace and Pearls, changed my life in that it allowed me to rediscover long-dormant memories. Drawing on these memories, I was able to create an entirely new world and characters, which reflected my values system and provided a compass to how I wanted to live the rest of my life. My most recent work is very different. It is a translation from French to English. While my own writing deals with trauma inflicted by others on people caught up in conflict in various parts of the world, my translation, Choosing Eleonore, does the opposite: it examines the self-affliction of trauma stemming from obsession and is played out in a very local setting. In writing my own fiction, I see myself as the artist/creator, free to go in whatever direction I choose. The originality of the core messages is very important. In translating a work of fiction by another writer, I am duty-bound to serve as an artisan, rendering the work of the other writer into a form accessible to an audience of another language and culture. The attention to linguistic detail, the retention of the voice of the author and the elimination of any sense of the book being a translation are what is important.
2 - How did you come to fiction first, as opposed to, say, poetry or non-fiction?
Actually, I came first to writing through non-fiction, but non-fiction written for select audiences with government security clearances. Secrecy was an integral part of my life as a foreign service officer. Fiction was a liberation from that. Poetry has also been with me for a long time, but only recently have I begun to keep what I write down. Other than the occasional poem I might write on my Facebook page, I don’t intend to publish my poetry. However, lines of poetry filter into my prose, consciously and unconsciously.
3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?
My first novel took three months to write. It was a challenge I set for myself and literally, I would come home every day from work at Global Affairs Canada and write until I fell asleep. I paced my second novel over about five years, with once not even looking at it for at least one year. My initial translation of Choosing Eleonore took about four weeks of intense work. After that, I refined the language, again and again, over the course of six months. I have edited and contributed to an anthology of short stories on different aspects of marginalization: The Marginal Ride Anthology. It was completed in about four months and each of my two short stories in it was written in less than a day. My first drafts of all my writing projects largely resemble the storylines of the final products, but the imagery and prose are extensively reworked based on feedback from beta readers.
4 - Where does a work of prose usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?
Generally, I work on a book from the very beginning. However, I think the technique of writing short pieces, e.g. flash fiction, short stories or short novellas and then turning them into full novels is a very interesting one, and has certainly worked for many other authors. At one point, I might experiment with this.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I enjoy doing readings and organizing them. The interaction with other writers and the audience gives me a shot in the arm to continue to write. For about three years, I ran the Magical Evening with Canadian Authors reading series in Ottawa, Montreal and Toronto. Following that, I founded the Prose in the Park Literary Festival in Ottawa, which ran from 2015 to 2017. These literary undertakings brought me into contact with a universe of Canadian literary talent, ranging from Giller Prize winners to local self-published authors. More recently, I was a panellist at the 2020 Frankfurt Book Fair and the Feria del libro de Murcia (Spain). I hope to return to Germany this year to launch the German translation of Quill of the Dove.
6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?
My fundamental question for my readers is why do injustice, war, conflict and abuse continue to be meted out to innocent people. Are human beings hard-wired to be narcissistic and malicious to others, or are we all victims of our fears, prejudices and tribalism? Can we collectively change our history of violence by retreating from identity politics and look instead for the human being inside everyone we meet?
7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?
Our world exists in images capturing moments of the human experience. Culture translates those images into various media: film, art, news, non-fiction and fiction. With the exception of visual artists, writers are the backbone for those transformational media. It is difficult to imagine our society without writers. What would we be left with—artificial intelligence pulling together a string of visual ads to keep us focussed on computer screens to buy unneeded consumer products? Or perhaps, tweeted memes preying on knee-jerk reactions and instigating conflict among people? I think recently in the United States, we have had a glimpse of what this type of dystopia could look like. The role of the writer should be to digest human experience, draw out its meaningful lessons for society and put them intelligently in an accessible media whether in books, film or news.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
I usually workshop my drafts with a lot of beta readers who are also writers. So, by the time, I get to an outside editor, in my case the editor of my publisher, Guernica Editions, my draft is very close to the final stage. Consequently, it has not been difficult working with an editor. Is it essential to work with an editor? I think it is, but the editor must also be an excellent writer and open-minded.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
I once had an employee who had been a professional screen-writer in Hollywood in an earlier life. I asked him for a few tips about writing as I was starting on my first novel. He said simply start in the middle of your story, and if you can’t do that in your first draft, re-jig your second draft to move passages from the middle of the story to your first chapter. It is a simple trick that works quite well most of the time.
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (fiction to translation)? What do you see as the appeal?
I love languages, so moving between fiction and translation has been natural. For most of my life, I have been living in two languages: English and French. I have also learned German, Spanish and Arabic along the way. In the past year and a half, I have co-translated with German translators several English books into German. We are still looking for publishers for these books, but the experience has been very rewarding in deepening my understanding of what makes a good translation work.
11 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?
I am not a person subject to much routine. When I write, I tend to become consumed by the writing and put almost everything else aside. However, there can be long periods when I feel no urge to write.
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
I am inspired by my memories of past experience, but recalling those experiences and weaving them into fictional stories is not that easy. Really, what I find useful is telling good listeners about a story idea I have in mind and fielding their questions about it. I find that this verbal back-and-forth often stirs me to shape the plot with many new ideas.
13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
Cedar. When I rake the cedar branches in my yard (I have a lot of cedar trees and bushes), their aroma overwhelms me. It anchors me not only in my current home in Aylmer, Quebec, but takes me back to my childhood summers at the family cottage in Cultus Lake, B.C., and on the rare occasion to the ancient cedar forests on the slopes of Mountain Lebanon, a home more spiritual than materialistic.
14 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?
Human beings influence my writing. There is a richness to observing directly human interactions and being part of them. I don’t think that my own writing stems from other books, at least not consciously. I am not really part of that tradition.
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
Several works of non-fiction have contributed to my approach to writing fiction and my Weltanschauung. First, there is the seminal work on the Lebanese Civil War, Pity the Nation, by Robert Fisk. It inspired the writing of my second novel, Quill of the Dove. Similarly, O Jerusalem by Dominique Lapierre and Larry Collins shaped profoundly my historical understanding of the conflict in Palestine/Israel, even before I lived there. Both books contrast competing narratives and explore human motivations in a deeper way than most academic studies. Bury my Heart at Wounded Knee by Dee Brown, which I read in my late teens, strongly contributed to shaping my views on genocidal racism in the United States. Later, I would work for the Crees in Northern Quebec in a job that enabled me to travel to indigenous communities across Canada. This allowed me to gain a more nuanced understanding of indigenous experiences in Canada. For fiction, the strongest influence has come from the novels of Erich Maria Remarque, best known for All Quiet on the Western Front. Spanning several decades, I read a number of his novels in German and sometimes again in English translation. Remarque’s intrinsic message was to stand up to war-mongering and authoritarianism, regardless of the personal cost. As for Canadian authors, I attempt to learn to be a better writer by studying the works of Madeleine Thien, Stephen Galloway, Steven Heighton, Vincent Lam and Rawi Hage.
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
I would like to write a limited-series screenplay for my second novel, Quill of the Dove. When I wrote this novel, I did so by transcribing images running through my head. It was a very cinematic approach. The next step of repeating the process by transcribing these images into screenplay format is very tempting. The novel was optioned in 2019 for a limited series by Original Pictures in Toronto, but the film company was unable to proceed with the project, and the film rights have since been returned. So, the field is clear for a second attempt to pitch the novel for film adaptation.
17 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?
I recently retired from being a foreign service officer after 26 years of service. It was, in some ways, my fourth career. Being a diplomat was a profession that I had long sought before it actually happened. Before that, I was an international development worker in Ethiopia and the Gaza Strip, worked in education administration in Cree communities in Northern Quebec and taught English in Quebec and abroad. Writing and translating might be the end chapter of my work life. But in addition to writing, I have been seriously thinking of being a cultural entrepreneur, creating a venue to bring the sale of books and art together while offering an aesthetically pleasing atmosphere for people to enjoy a coffee or glass of wine. Maybe this Books-Art-Café will still happen. We’ll see after Covid-19 has run its course.
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
I have been earning my bread and butter as a writer for a long time in some capacity or another, but fiction writing came late in my life. And it is definitely not as lucrative as my earlier careers. While I was a political analyst, my writing, although prolific, was restricted to a very small government audience and governed by rules of need-to-know. I was recognized as having a belle plume, but the job was to be factual, analytical and connecting the dots in a way to help guide Canadian politicians. There was little room for metaphors, engaging storylines or character development. When I returned to headquarters from working at the Canadian Embassy in Berlin, I was assigned to manage corporate and internal communications for Global Affairs Canada. Pretty dry stuff, you would think. Sometimes it was, but the job also included managing the departmental magazine, Our World. This was a real opportunity to edit and write creative stories about matters of interest to the thousands of employees at Global Affairs. Once the creative juices were flowing, I decided I would have a hand at writing fiction with political backdrops. The experience of writing my first novel was cathartic.
19 - What was the last great book you read?
There have been so many great books over the years, it is hard to choose just one. Dogs at the Perimeter by Madeleine Thien certainly left a lasting mark on me. The passages in Pol Pot’s Cambodia were particularly impactful and paralleled some chapters in my first novel, Soldier, Lily, Peace and Pearls. Most recently, I read Life in the Court of Matane, the English translation of Éric Dupont’s Bestiaire. Set in small towns in the Gaspé Peninsula, it was a masterful translation of a brilliant work of auto-fiction laced with magical realism. It took me back to the year I spent at Laval University when many of my classmates came from the Gaspésie and were imbued with the dreams of Quebec’s independence and an escape from the social conservatism of their home communities.
What was the last great film?
I spend a lot of time watching German films. Some are good and some are great, but the film that has touched me the deepest was Elementarteilchen (Elementary Particles or known under the English title Atomized). I saw it when it premiered in Berlin in 2006. It is the deeply touching, sometimes troubling story of Bruno, a high school teacher in his thirties whose relations with women suffer from his childhood as the dragged-along kid in his mother’s journey of free-love through the hippie communes of Europe. He finally escapes his sense of insignificance and finds happiness in an open relationship with a woman who pulls him into her world of unending sexual experimentation. At the apex of their unconventional love, she is paralyzed. Bruno lapses into cowardice and loses her during his moment of hesitation. Parallel to Bruno’s story is that of his half-brother, Michael, a scientist whose ground-breaking work on cloning eliminates the need for love in human reproduction. The film was based on the controversial novel by French writer Michel Houellebecq, which in its English translation won the International Dublin Literary Award.
20 - What are you currently working on?
I am conceptualizing a new novel. Essentially, it deals with the bookends of a man’s life, written in present and flashback chapters. In the present (2019), Manuel Suarez is a retired writer of cultural affairs, now in his nineties and living in southern France. As a boy, he fled from Catalonia after the defeat of the Republican forces in Barcelona. During the German occupation of France, he joins the French resistance. Over the past years, Marie Boivin, a Canadian journalist who was very close to his late nephew, has befriended Manuel and looked to him for advice. As the Spanish federal government and Catalonia regional government clash over the latter’s plans for an independence referendum, Marie asks Manuel to accompany her to Catalonia to act as her interpreter for a story on the Catalan independence movement. The return home evokes in Manuel memories of the civil war in Spain, the escape across the Pyrenees and his years as a refugee and then resistance fighter. Several of the characters in the novel, including Manuel and Marie, appeared in my second novel, Quill of the Dove. Like Quill of the Dove, the new novel will explore the human side and costs of identity politics and past and present-day nationalism..